Ecosystem Restoration and Ecological Design

The prairie at Marlatt Park on the northwest side of Manhattan, Kansas is burn-managed by Kansas State University personnel and serves as an important place for teaching, research, and recreation.
image: Lee R. Skabelund.

At ASLA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago in September 2009, I discussed guiding principles related to ecological restoration in urban and suburban settings. I also highlighted indicators of “restoration success.” In this post I revisit ideas shared in a subsequent summary report of our education session.

In 2005, geomorphologist Matt Kondolf and I interviewed 17 experts in the field of ecological restoration (including leading landscape architects and ecologists in academia and practice). A number of important themes emerged, including the flowing five ideas:

A) There is an absolute need for effective collaboration and communication—about project intentions, goals and approaches—between planners, designers, relevant agency personnel, other disciplines, as well as clients, stakeholders, and the public.

B) We need to base our project goals upon a realistic appraisal of what is feasible given current and expected bio-physical and socio-political conditions in the area and region.

C) We need to be explicit about desired future conditions and establish measurable performance standards related to project intentions, goals, and objectives if we are to determine a project success.

D) We need to recognize that invasive species monitoring and management will likely be a part of nearly every ecological restoration effort.

E) We need to help build the institutional infrastructure necessary to manage a restored site, ecosystem, or landscape over the long-term.

Per the professionals we interviewed, indicators of “successful ecological restoration” include two primary outcomes:

1) the project’s effectiveness in meeting stated project goals, objectives, and performance criteria, and
2) the ability to create a system that functions in accord with desired ecosystem attributes and conditions.

The International Student Center Rain-Garden project. Along with didactic educational events such as tours and field sessions, regular monitoring and management actions provide excellent opportunities for people to learn first-hand about ecological restoration and design in urban areas.
image: Lee R. Skabelund

How do we determine “desired ecosystem attributes and conditions”? Reference ecosystems should be documented using ecological descriptions and species lists of the systems we are seeking to emulate. Additionally, we should draw upon other available and relevant sources of information as described in many documents published with the support of the Society for Ecological Restoration International and in the CRC Press “Integrative Studies in Water Management and Land Development” book series.

The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) is great source for information about readings and project work. SER’s resources page includes links to primary journals (including Ecological Restoration), the Island Press “Science and Practice of Ecological Restoration” book series, SER Foundation Documents (including the “SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration” and the ecological restoration guidelines paper by Clewell, Rieger & Munro [2005]), and other publications.

Other indicators of vital concern in defining the “success” of ecological restoration projects include:

▪ Employing aesthetics to create pleasing human experiences;

▪ Creating projects which are highly acceptable to clients, stakeholders, and the public;

▪ Initiating sustainability of the restored site, ecosystem or landscape by promoting the system’s capacity to adapt to its particular setting – ecological and socio-political; creating systems that are productive/regenerative, complex/bio-diverse, and dynamic;

▪ Properly designing, implementing, managing, and monitoring projects by using appropriate references and specifying appropriate materials; employing appropriate tools and techniques, and ensuring that project sites are enjoyed and cared for over the long term;

▪ Optimizing multiple benefits (namely recreation opportunities, aesthetic, spiritual, and educational experiences, and ecosystem services);

▪ Utilizing resources (ecological, cultural, and financial) efficiently and wisely;

▪ Bringing participants together in a meaningful learning process; and,

▪ Helping leverage funds for other conservation and restoration work.

The Konza Prairie Biological Station is actively managed by Kansas State University (KSU) and serves as an inspiration and reference for ecological restoration efforts in urban settings. It is likewise an amazing place to hike and observe the dynamics of natural system.
image: Lee R. Skabelund

My introduction to this education sessionCreating Sustainable Landscapes by Interweaving Ecosystem Restoration and Ecological Designdrew upon the writings of some of the foremost thinkers in the circles of ecology, landscape ecology, and ecological restoration. For your reference, we have provided a copy of the slides and presentation notes, which you can access by clicking here.

Typically, a primary goal of most ecological restoration projects should be to re-establish functional ecosystems of a designated type in a manner that allows for the maturation of these systems by natural processes – after exotic weed control, planting, and possibly grading, temporary biotechnical stabilization, and irrigation.  In short, restored ecosystems should be capable of responding to changing environmental conditions, particularly if proposed within or near urban landscapes.

Once restored, a site or ecosystem will likely require periodic management in order to maintain “ecosystem integrity” in response to ongoing human impacts. Thus, as John Cairns, Jr. noted in his spring 2006 article entitled “Restoring Damaged Aquatic Ecosystems”, although complete restoration may be our aspiration, partial restoration is typically a more realistic goal.  Active, ongoing monitoring and management are attributes of what I view as the “partial and early stages of restoration.”

Konza Prairie Biological Station – this 3,487 hectare (8,616acre) tallgrass prairie preserve is jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and KSU and is an essential venue for ecological research and education – supported by burn-management and cattle or bison grazing.
image: Lee R. Skabelund

Stuart K. Allison’s Ecological Restoration and Environmental Change: Renewing Damaged Ecosystems is a particularly timely book discussing the way planners/designers should conceive of restoration.

ASLA’s 2008 Successful Ecological Restoration Landscape Architecture Technical Information Series (LATIS) paper is also a great place to learn about the basics of ecological restoration design.

For more on the creation of functional ecosystems see the following R&R-PPN document: Ecological Restoration of Functional Ecosystems (October 2007)


1. Allison, S. K. 2012. Ecological Restoration and Environmental Change: Renewing Damaged Ecosystems. London and New York: Routledge.

2. Cairns, J. Jr. 2006. “Restoring Damaged Aquatic Ecosystems.” Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, 31(1):53-74.

3. Clewell, A., Rieger, J. and J. Munro. 2005. “A Society for Ecological Restoration Publication: Guidelines for Developing and Managing Ecological Restoration Projects, 2nd Edition.”

4. Skabelund, L.R., Kondolf, G.M., Johnson, C.W., and A. Bukojemsky. 2008. Successful Ecological Restoration: A Framework for Planning/Design Professionals.

5. Landscape Architecture Technical Information Series (LATIS). Successful Ecological Restoration (2008) .

by Lee R. Skabelund, ASLA.  Lee is an Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture / Regional & Community Planning at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. He has played a leading role in ASLA’s Reclamation & Restoration Professional Interest Group and Professional Practice Network since 2001.

One thought on “Ecosystem Restoration and Ecological Design

  1. Dave Egan March 26, 2015 / 8:58 pm

    If you’ll pardon a bit of promotion, I’d like to suggest that a number of these issues are covered in some detail in the book, Human Dimension of Ecological Restoration, published by Island Press in 2011. The book is part of the SER/Island Press Series about Ecological Restoration. I am one of the co-editors.
    Dave Egan

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